Attention liberals: Blasphemy cases on the rise in Egypt

As I have said numerous times, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring in a land as complex as Egypt, especially in news articles of a thousand words or less. For example, some of the key terms used by people at the heart of the events -- "Islamist" is the best example -- are being used in vague ways that make them almost impossible for outsiders to understand. What is the difference, in practical terms, between a "moderate" Islamist, an Islamist and a Salafi Islamist?

A recent New York Times report took on one of the most dangerous trends in Egypt today, which the rising number of blasphemy cases being filed against Christians, liberals and other religious minorities. This story does not mention that, as a rule, blasphemy charges are used against Islamic minorities and dissenters even more than against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim believers. One must assume, I guess, that the actual trend in Egypt at the moment is a rising number of cases filed against Coptic Orthodox believers and other Christians.

This story impressed me for one simple reason: It provided human, understandable details about the cases. The story disappointed me, however, in that it never offered examples of what people were saying or doing that led to the blasphemy charges.

That's a rather basic fact to omit. Was the Times afraid of printing so-called blasphemy?

Here's a crucial chunk of the background:

Blasphemy cases were once rare in Egypt, and their frequency has increased sharply since the revolution. More than two dozen cases have gone to trial, and nearly all defendants have been found guilty. At least 13 have received prison sentences.

The campaign is driven at the local level, where religious activists have also forced officials to suspend teachers and professors. In at least 10 cases, Christian families have been expelled from their homes after perceived insults, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt’s richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.

“Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression,” said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been instrumental in filing the cases but does not oppose them. “Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?” ...

None of this should have surprised anyone who watched the polls in Egypt during the overthrow of the previous government. In a 2011 Scripps Howard column, I noted some numbers from the Pew Forum:

About six-in-ten (62 percent) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31 percent of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30 percent) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26 percent have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39 percent) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36 percent think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities.

Thus, this new Times story -- for once -- looks beyond urban Egypt and finds the reality in the heavily Islamist regions far from the stain of modernity.

And what is going on out there? Here is one of the case studies offered in this sobering report. This is long, but I want GetReligion readers to see the kind of detail one needs to understand what is happening at the local level:

Last July, a Christian teacher, Beshoy Kamel from Sohag in central Egypt, heard that someone had created a Facebook page using his name and photograph and was posting messages insulting Islam and President Mohamed Morsi, his family said. Mr. Kamel told the police about the page, his family said, and posted a warning that still stands on his personal page that the other account was not his.

But when a local Salafi received a private message from the account insulting him and his religion, he filed a complaint against Mr. Kamel, who was arrested soon afterward. Local Islamists heard about the case and spread copies of the texts from the insulting page, causing protests that twice forced the police to delay hearings.

The day the trial opened, Mr. Kamel was sentenced to six years in prison: three for contempt of religion, two for insulting the president and one for slander, court documents say. Islamists protested outside the court, and a video shows them rushing to attack Mr. Kamel as the police led him outside.

There's more:

Court documents show that prosecutors never tried to prove that Mr. Kamel had administered the insulting page, which has since been removed but whose contents were quoted in case files. Egypt’s Interior Ministry filed a report saying it could not determine the page’s owner. That made no difference to Salah Khanous, a Salafi lawyer involved in the case, who said there was a “systematic campaign” among Egypt’s Christians to insult Islam.

“They should have cut his throat for it,” Mr. Khanous said.

So what constitutes an insult? What are these Christians, atheists and others being accused of saying or doing?

Perhaps these kinds of basic facts are too dangerous. There may be questions, in today's Egypt, that cannot even be asked by New York Times reporters.

PHOTO: A protest in Egypt against blasphemers, drawn from Facebook.

Please respect our Commenting Policy